Understanding Visual Culture- Assignment 5- What is Reality?

For our final assignment, we had to explore the issues surrounding “the real” in contemporary society. I have chosen to concentrate on reality television shows, in particular “docusoaps” such as “Keeping up with the Kardashians”, “The Only Way is Essex” and others of a similar nature.

The new breed of reality show began around 2004 with “Laguna Beach – The Real Orange County” which aimed to show real people living in Orange County after the popularity of The O.C. Although, as mentioned, there were other docusoaps before 2004, it was only in the new millennium that the public began to idolise the people in these shows. In the Nineties reality programmes were based on people working in places such as airports and in the police for example so they were more about what it takes to manage these places and look at the work that goes into the jobs. People invested time in these programmes as it gave them a glimpse into what happens behind the scenes and allowed people to see if the stereotypes rang true. These shows were arguably more sophisticated and showed professional people going about their day to day business. There were moments that were comical; however it very much remained a workplace. Very few people from these types of shows rose from their humble backgrounds and enjoyed some stardom, which arguably has become the norm in recent times. Notable exceptions to this include Jane MacDonald from “The Cruise” and Jeremy Spake from “Airport”. With this new breed of programme audiences were allowed into people’s lives and, in a sense, see how the other half live. The structure has now changed so the stories and situations are based on the people involved as opposed to people being the secondary element in previous times. This was and remains hugely popular, especially amongst teens and people in their 20’s, who are at an impressionable time in their lives. They are sucked into the wonderful lifestyles and beautiful people and want to emulate it themselves.

I began my research by looking at what makes us watch and become so enthralled with this type of programme. Everyone loves a good soap opera, however there is always something missing; a reality to it and this is where programmes like The Only Way is Essex and Made in Chelsea fit in. These are real people, supposedly, sharing their real life dramas with the cameras and viewers lap it up. There are a number of possible reasons for our interest which relates back to an exercise we completed earlier in the course called “Fetishing the object of your eye”. Within this exercise we had to look at the reasons why people avidly watch television or look at things, such as art galleries, in a ritualised way. From this exercise, I was able to relate the following reasons for people’s interest in “docusoaps”:

  • Human nature/natural curiosity to want to watch/look at others;
  • Scopophilia- the pleasure of looking;
  • To gain a better understanding about how other people live;
  • It gives viewers a break from the norm or removes them from everyday life as the “stars” never have to do things like pay bills or household chores. They also never seem to suffer from loneliness;
  • Viewers like to idolise and emulate the people they see on these programmes as they seem to have the perfect lifestyle;
  • Viewers may find that they can relate to some of the people they see on TV;
  • It can help shape people’s opinions and personalities e.g. it might help them understand a cause that is close to one of the cast members or it might give the viewer the confidence to try something new.

All reality television programmes can be viewed as a spectacle. They are all events which are regarded in terms of their visual impact.

“The spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable and inaccessible. It says nothing more than ‘that which appears is good, that which is good appears’. The attitude which it demands in principle is passive acceptance which in fact it already obtained by its manner of appearing without reply, by its monopoly of appearance”

Reality TV has become such a talking point in day to day life, that people are always asking each other if they have seen the latest episode of a particular show. The visual impact they offer is bright and bold, they often show young and attractive people (both men and women) that viewers can either idolise, be attracted to or despise. Their homes and surroundings are also well kept and they rarely feature bad weather.

Docusoaps and the whole reality genre are about observation. Viewers are segregated from the situation and are watching it unfold before us. It can be likened to Bentham’s “Panopticon” as the television screen acts as the cells of a prison, perfectly framing the cast members. They are fully aware that they are being watched but have no idea exactly when they are being watched and their observer (the viewer) is completely disguised from them. Within his article “Panopticism”, Michel Foucault states

“It does not matter what the motive animates him: the curiosity of the indiscreet, the malice of a child, the thirst for knowledge of a philosopher who wishes to visit this museum of human nature, or the perversity of those who take pleasure in spying and punishing”.

This quote also relates to the audience these sort of shows attract. They can be anyone from university students to doctors for example because it is in our nature to watch or look at other people. This is often why this type of programme is labelled as a guilty pleasure. Everyone who watches these programmes take great pleasure in ‘spying’ and in the case of programmes such as “I’m a Celebrity” the viewer takes great pleasure in voting for particular people to take part in trials, knowing very well that the chosen celebrity could be too frightened to compete, thus leading to the other celebrities suffering from lack of food. Foucault the goes on to say:

“The more numerous those anonymous and temporary observers are, the greater the risk for the inmate of being surprised and the greater his anxious awareness of being observed. The Panopticon is a marvellous machine which, whatever use one may wish to put it to, produces homogeneous effects of power”

This may seem an unusual quote and focussed on ‘inmates’ however the underlying principle is the same. The more people watch and engage with the programmes, the more the cast perform and want to please their audience and keep the show going. The power over the cast is maintained by the viewers. This also links nicely to Lacan’s “gaze” which is about the relationship between the subject having the desire to look but also being aware that they too are being viewed. The viewer thinks that they are in control of what they are seeing, which to an extent, is true as they are the driving force that keeps the programme going. However, the programme itself controls the viewer as it captures and holds their attention. The gaze is also linked to fantasy and desire which relates back to the reasons why we watch; to idolise, desire or despise the cast members and dream about what it would be like to live their lives.

Docusoaps often show people who have strong characters and are the epitomy of their stereotype for example the cast of The Only Way is Essex and the cast of Jersey Shore. Both of these programmes show these characters in the exact way that people stereotypically see them. This seems like a self-defeating approach as it just fuels the stereotype and doesn’t show the varieties of people in the areas the programmes are filmed. As mentioned previously, the reality shows of the nineties seemed more about dispelling these stereotypes and seeing more behind the people that make up the police force for example.

As long as these programmes have been around, there have been questions as to how much of what we see is real. When the programme The Hills was first broadcast in the UK, an advisory had to be placed at the beginning of the show advising people “Some of the scenes you are about to see have been created purely for entertainment purposes”. The cast of Keeping up with the Kardashians have regularly commented on how they are able to have things edited if they didn’t like the way they came across. With Kim Kardashian even quoted saying

“From the start, they’ve always said we have, you know, the right to edit and to approve all footage.”

The most controversial point about editing and Keeping up with the Kardashians came when Kim Kardashian filed for divorce from Kris Humphries and he went on to sue her for $10 million as he felt that he had been painted as the “bad guy” in some of the programmes and its spin offs. The creative director of Lime Pictures, Tony Wood, that produces The Only Way is Essex and Geordie Shore has been very open about how the programmes are structured, even saying in an interview

“We’ll steer the characters to certain places. Before the cameras roll we’ll say ‘remember to ask what happened last night’,” said Mr Wood. “In the edit, I’ll cut words out of sentences to make it more ‘writerly’ and give it that soap opera quality. But we don’t make anything happen that they don’t want to happen. The emotional narrative is real.”

With this approach, the cast are often the butt of jokes as to whether they, themselves, are aware of what is real or made up. This all relates to Jean Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulations”. Within this piece, Baudrillard explains how in the present day, reality is now created as models which have very little or no basis in reality whereas previously, models were based on reality. The two quotations below describe this.

“Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept.”

“It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hypereal. The territory no longer precedes the map”

As they are described as reality shows and they show “day to day” life, we as the viewer invests in them and believes the “reality” of them. In the beginning, the shows were based on the cast’s real lives, however over time they became a reality of their own. As previously mentioned, producers and cast members are quite open about the fact that aspects are scripted and that they are able to go back and edit things if they feel as though they don’t like the way they have come across.

In conclusion there are a number of issues surrounding the reality within reality television “docusoaps”. Before watching these types of programmes, you need to be aware that to a certain extent they have been structured to make it more interesting and draw us in. Reality television occupies a spectrum of downright falsehoods to hypereal situations and the producers and cast members are fully aware of how to captivate their viewers. However it is ultimately the viewer that controls the situation as the programme cannot continue without them. Within our current culture, we have become obsessed with bettering ourselves and wanting to emulate others that seem to have it all. Sadly, this way of life is becoming more and more common and with the birth of these programmes it seems as though it is here to stay. Thus this has become the new reality.








Visual Culture: A Reader- Edited by Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall- Published 2013

The Visual Culture Reader Second Edition- Edited by Nicholas Mirzoeff- Published 2006


About kunsworthphotography

I am currently studying towards a BA (Hons) in Photography with OCA and I have 2 children, Evie(4 years old) and Connor(3 years old)
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